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Food and Agriculture

How innovative micro urban farms can feed cities

Insights from Organic Market Auckland

Photography by Tracey Creed
Words by Tracey Creed and Amandine Paniagua

Published May 11 2021

Regenerative, agro-ecological agriculture, organic and other low impact sustainable farming systems are often dismissed as backwards or a highly romanticised fantasy — particularly by multinational chemical agriculture companies with a vested interest in maintaining an industrial system. In reality, these low-impact methods of farming are rooted in the realities of local climate and culture and provide promising models of resilience. Agriculture has been stripped out of its lively ecological context and turned into a chemical mechanistic process.

Exploring the aftermath of the Green Revolution — a sophisticated mechanism to produce and consume food driven by fossil fuels, regenerative organic agriculture presents an elegant, under-recognised opportunity to stabilise the climate. Yet it is rarely discussed as a viable solution to systems not resilient to the repercussions of the global climate crisis. Covid-19 has already exposed the vulnerability of the global food system and it’s imperative upon our policymakers to reimagine the system. Predictions otherwise are catastrophic.

The arrival of the pandemic has shown our ability to survive radical adaptation when the need is perceived as urgent enough. Imagine what we could do for the climate if we were to create a thriving network of rural farms and urban gardens.

Organic Market Garden Auckland, farming in the city

Consider, for instance, Organic Market Garden (OMG), a biodynamic farm in Auckland Central that grows more than 26 edible plants on 310 m2 of growing space, sequestering atmospheric carbon in the soil, harvesting nitrogen from the air, protecting the soil from erosion, and providing habitats for beneficial insects. The garden is supported by City Rail Link and collaborates with community groups that have transformed the current Symonds Street Junction. More than a dozen people donate their time to OMG weekly, supervised by Levi Brinsdon Hall, who since October 2018 spent over 700 hours transforming the site into the thriving urban sanctuary it is today.

Their aim is to create carbon-sequestering pollinator sanctuaries — an urban farming network, a local community garden for every 1 km, all over the city with the goal of improving access to quality chemical-free produce and achieving food security. OMG is a case study that demonstrates producing food differently is possible. Agriculture, positioned at the intersection of food and climate, presents a unique opportunity that unlike the current focus on yield, considers livelihood, agro-biodiversity and climate resilience. As Levi Brinsdon-Hall has noted — “We create gardens and teach biological growing not only because it’s what we love doing, but because we see it as a solution to the issues we fear, food insecurity, biodiversity loss, climate breakdown, global insect depletion. We direct the emotion we feel from the weight of these problems into creating and inspiring change”.

Levi Brinsdon Hall, the modern gardener

And Levi is passionate! Watching the videos he began during our 2020 lockdown is invigorating. You learn a lot. He has studied Fine Art and Geography at the University of Auckland and is well practised in permaculture, organic farming, seed propagation and seeds saving, alongside his partner Ella Rose Schnapp.

Levi realised his love for seeds in his final year of Art School, coordinating a workshop project called “Being with the seed”, it was here that he met Sarah Smuts Kennedy. Learning about biodynamic seed propagation, energy systems and seed politics, he had afterwards the opportunity to bring home vegetable food seedlings. And that’s how he started his first garden. “I took home a whole load of tomato, pumpkin, and corn seedlings and grew my first garden”. It was during this time that he met his partner, further breathing life force into his passion for gardening. Ella helped him direct his creative energy into growing food, soil, gardens and community. Learning and creating together fed their knowledge on farming regeneratively and producing nutrient-dense food at a large scale. For Levi, growing food, saving seeds and caring for the land is the story of humanity, and creating a garden is a model for change.

A full-time employee at OMG, Levi supervises the garden, organises the volunteers and manages relationships with suppliers, sponsors and customers — either members of the public or hospitality establishments. Chefs love working with OMG’s produce, harvested moments before delivery is fresher and that affects the taste — for many growers, flavour is quite far down the list of requirements when supplying to say, supermarkets.

Diversity in regenerative farming

The (not so) secret of Levi and his team in producing greater food volumes in the least amount of space is simple—grow more species. Through permaculture practices, they created a system complementing Nature’s way, constantly enriching the soil. The more they give to the soil, the more they receive. And this has nothing to do with fertiliser.

Put simply, plant leaves capture the energy of the sun and transform it into sugar through photosynthesis, flushing it into the dirt through their roots, feeding microbes, bacterias, fungus that in return produce minerals and nutrients nourishing the plants. As with everything on this Earth, this is a synergic relationship. With each species comes different types of roots, feeding a specific group of microorganisms. So to feed a diverse range of soil microorganisms, and by extension produce more minerals for the plants and building healthy soil, retaining water, building hummus, you need a wide range of plants—large lasting crops, cover crops, annuals or evergreen, the more diverse you cover your land, the better. As Levi explains, “What we do is grow food at a greater scale and a greater density, with diversity as well. It’s basically biological farming that not only grows really good food for us — healthy, nutritious food — but also grows really good food for the soil and really good food for all the pollinators.”

This topic seems more relevant than ever. OMG offers a template for agro-diversifying and bringing climate resilience to the agri-food system. But how do you go about starting a garden from scratch? Whether on a large scale, a small corner with sunlight or trying to rejuvenate a forgotten planter box, Levi abundantly shares tips on social media, below are some gems that offer a creative approach to growing your own food—at home.

Learn. Volunteer at your local community garden. Other people's knowledge is a never-ending source of inspiration. If you are in Auckland, come to volunteer at OMG with Levi. OMG is a teaching hub and they are always looking for volunteers to give a hand. Also, don’t be afraid to start your own garden, Ella and Levi learned by doing.

Never till, fork or dig into the soil. In regenerative gardening you want biomass to accumulate, build soil matter, not to bring to the surface what is supposed to live under. By moving the soil, you also risk bringing up seeds that will then compete with your own sowing, making it difficult for your veggie garden to thrive.

Grow in rows. Fitting in a multitude of crops, in 1 meter wide rows. This is wide enough to easily come across with your legs, without doing the splits!

Grow tight and diverse. Plants will be healthier and more resilient, indeed resistant — it’s also more fun according to Levi! Basically, in your garden, you want to see plants, not soil. If you have no idea with which species to start, below are some companion planting rows taken from OMG. Works for late summer, early autumn.

— Camphrey, white clover, celery.

— Beans, basil, aubergine, jalapenos, spring onions, radishes.

—Beetroot, flat-leaf parsley, spring onions, alysum that attracts beneficial insects, then again beetroots, carrots, spring onions, carrots and Kohlrabi (Six species over a meter wide!).

— Corn, daikon, marigold, rocket, lettuce, coriander, aubergines, cucumbers.

Plant many cover crops. Designed to cover the soil, a variety of cover crops increases soil diversity, reducing pests, weeds and feeding other plants. Cover crops also prevent water and soil from running off. Easy to grow, annual, cover crops are planted according to season and desired outcome, from creating biomass, to nourish pollinators or fix nitrogen. They are here to provide even more resilience to your regenerative garden. Learn more on Stone Soup Vol.10.

Harvest for the long game. Learn the best practice harvesting to increase production. For long-lasting celery, keep the plant in the soil, and harvest by stripping off the outer celery leaves, stalk by stalk. Putting your fingers inside the stalk, pushing through the bottom and pulling the stalk with the other hand, for a clean cut. To keep the crops healthy, a regular wave of compost will help keep the harvest season longer. Here is a selection of cover crops advised by Levi in Stone Soup Vol.10.

Examples of such productivity combined with critical ecosystem services can be found all over the country and on every continent, public founded or private initiatives. What follows are just a few of many protagonists of change practising permaculture principles.

Siti Makame in Tanzania. What makes Africa’s permaculture movement super unique is the fact that it’s being advanced for the most part by and for the most vulnerable. Women. In Tanzania, the impacts of climate change severely exacerbate challenges women face as primary food providers. Makame, an agricultural extension worker, became the first resident of Pemba Island to be certified in Permaculture Design. She now works with women across the island to address food security using home-scale permaculture techniques. To date, she has trained over 150 women throughout 20 communities in the design and maintenance of small scale permaculture gardens.

Andrea Leia and Nathan Uyeda in Argentina. This couple believe that permaculture, regenerative agriculture, biodynamics and deep ecology are what connects us to the land — that nurturing ourselves, growing food, regenerating the soil and preserving Earth’s biodiversity, reconnects us with nature, and to one another. Situated on a half-acre of native forest, much of their work is dedicated to producing heirloom seeds—housing a seed bank of more than three hundred and consider it an act of love. What connects us to our past and our future. And part of that is an understanding that much of their work involves heightening awareness regarding our food systems, via talks and workshops.

Ron Finley in the U.S. Famous for years, the self-proclaimed Gangster Gardner radicalised gardening across his own South Central Los Angeles community—or as Finley refers to as a “food prison”. Since 2010 he’s grown community gardens and food forests in vacant lots around the wider Los Angeles—he wants to make cultivation “sexy” and “gangsta” — growing food, creating urban forests and building beautiful soil. Last April, his new online MasterClass in gardening launched when a national craze for gardening and then outrage over police violence and systemic racism brought a whole new audience into the narrative. His message? Empowerment through growing food.

Jean-Martin and Maude-Hélène Fortier in Canada. Farmers, educators and authors, this couple have empowered legions globally via their award-winning book, The Market Gardener, to reimagine human-scale food systems promoting the pursuit of lifestyle cultivation via organic and biologically intensive cropping practices. Located in Quebec, the internationally recognised 10-acre micro-farm — Les Jardins de la Grelinette is one and a half acres of cultivated permanent beds that grosses a cool $100 000 per acre with operating margins of about 60 per cent.

Pierre Rabhi in France. Pioneer of the 80s agroecology movement in France, Rabhi is the creator of “Oasis en Tous Lieux” [an Oasis in Any Place] and then later from the 90s—the Mouvement Colibri. He supports agricultural practices respectful of others and the Earth, accessible to anyone, including the most disadvantaged, while safeguarding our food inheritance. Today, the author, farmer and environmentalist resides as president of the Terre et Humanisme association and Vice President of the Kokopelli Association, which works to preserve biodiversity. Beyond France, Rabhi commenced numerous overseas agricultural and eco-villages programs in Morocco, Palestine, Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal, Togo, Benin, Mauritania, Poland and Ukraine.

Martin Crawford in England. Founder and Trust Director of Agroforestry Research Trust, Crawford has dedicated over 30 years to organic agriculture and horticulture. The Trust — an educational and research organisation was founded in 1992 though by 1994 had acquired 2 acres via the assistance of Dartington Hall Trust which is where the first demonstration garden was planted. Three years on a further 8 acres was leased allowing as a trial ground for fruit and nut crops. And then in 2011, Crawford acquired more land where he established two small-scale forest gardens as templates for domestic gardens. Motivated by implications of climate change, Crawford is developing a greenhouse garden to establish what we can grow if mean temperatures, as predicted, rise by 5°C — his belief that all our growing systems should be storing carbon. Plants and soil are currently the only way of taking carbon out of the air.

Arthur Motté in Belgium. Now 19, Motté’s passion for cultivation began at age 7, inspired and educated by a close friend, and now fuelled by the belief that empowering others to grow food, to cultivate within our community will mitigate the impacts of climate change. In his own space, vegetables are planted tightly — there is celery, cabbage, beans, cucumbers, squash along a fence. His insistence on self-education of Permaculture Design techniques and ecological growing systems led to some form of underground celebrity status. Motté wrote an excellent guide, ‘Mon petit Potager Bio Sur 15m²’, inspiring anyone in an urban or suburban environment to grow food and, if outdoors was not an option, a how-to for bringing the natural world indoors.

Creating a productive food garden is an immensely liberating practice, one that has led Levi and his partner to try new foods, experiment and share. So go forth, plant cover crops, harvest for the long game, live the self-sustaining dream. With the outside world now reduced to a weekly visit to the supermarket, that could soon be your backyard. Examples of such productivity combined with critical ecosystem services can be found all over the country and on every continent, public founded or private initiatives. What follows are more are just a few of many protagonists of change practicing permaculture principles.

A version of this article was first published on the 2021 Autumn Issue of Sage Journal

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